On a memorable day in 1930, identical twins William and Wilbur Baron first took the stage at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theater.
Just 8 years old, the Baron Brothers were “hoofers,” or dancers, in the Burt Smith Revue, a show similar to Ziegfeld’s Follies. The twins quickly gained fame for their “mirror” dance, in which they faced each other and precision tap-danced as if they were dancing with their reflection in a mirror.
Today, at 81 years old, the Barons are still jovial entertainers, and still difficult to tell apart as they reminisce about their youthful stage careers at Baltimore’s most magnificent showplace. “We played other theaters that were newer and more modern, but the Hippodrome was the authentic vaudeville theater – you got backstage and could smell the dressing rooms and the makeup,” says William. “The Hippodrome had a name people wanted to play, like they would play the Palace in New York. It was considered a classy theater to play.”
Thanks to a $63 million renovation, the Hippodrome Theater at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center is again a “classy theater” to play. When the curtain rises on “The Producers” on opening night, Feb. 10, many hope this downtown landmark will share the limelight with the redeveloped west side as well.
“It is a cornerstone, if not the cornerstone, of the redeveloped west side,” says Eric Grubman, chairman of the Hippodrome Foundation Inc., a non-profit organization that undertook the Hippodrome renovation with its partners, the Maryland Stadium Authority and Clear Channel Entertainment. “It will create a vibrancy in the area that is hard to create with just housing, just a market, just a university or just a hospital.”
According to Ron Kreitner, executive director of WestSide Renaissance Inc., “The revitalization of the Hippodrome is one of the most significant milestones in the rebirth of downtown Baltimore’s west side. Living downtown in this environment is a new dimension for residential life in Baltimore.”
Throughout its history, the Hippodrome’s popularity has correlated directly with the popularity of the cast of characters running it. The first was Marion Pearce, who built the theater in 1914 with his partner, Philip Scheck, on the site of the old Eutaw Street Hotel.
“Dad was a showman,” says E. Maurice Pearce, Marion’s son, who is now 93 and living in Florida. “He built the Hippodrome to be the prime movie and vaudeville house in Baltimore. They brought the first movie and stage shows to [the city] and the thing took off like fire. Everyone wanted to go.”
Marion Pearce had a passion for films. He would take a projector and reels of film to show movies in church basements and community halls in Washington, D.C., Frederick, Towson and as far away as Virginia. While Pearce changed the reels, Scheck would lead the audience in song to fill the dead air.
Pearce and Scheck opened the first store to sell moving picture equipment in Baltimore and made many of their own films. Pearce would travel to New York on weekends to select his vaudeville acts and even traveled to Hollywood several times.
Pearce officially partnered with Scheck in the early 1900s, and they opened their first movie theater, the Amusea, on Eutaw Street. A canvas curtain divided the theater in two; on one side were slot machines, on the other, patrons could see a film for a nickel. By 1912, Pearce and Scheck operated six houses and were the Baltimore distributor for Hollywood films. The Hippodrome was to be Pearce and Scheck’s crowning achievement.
Indeed, at the time of the Hippodrome’s creation, theater architecture was almost an art form. Scottish architect Thomas W. Lamb, a well-known theater architect at the turn of the century, created a masterpiece for Pearce and Scheck, the likes of which could hardly be replicated in the current climate.
The structure was built of steel, cement and stone, with elegant brickwork adorning the exterior. The walls of the grand interior space were covered in brown silk and ornamental plasterwork painted gold, all offset by brilliant red carpets and elaborate red draperies. Visitors entered the theater through doors topped by transoms of stained glass, and an ornately painted proscenium arch presided over the auditorium. A ventilation system constantly circulated the air to keep it fresh. Total cost to build the theater: $225,000.
When the Hippodrome opened on Nov. 23, 1914, ushers clad in light gray uniforms escorted guests to some 3,000 seats. According to an article that ran in the next morning’s Baltimore Sun, Mayor James Harry Preston kicked off the night commenting, “There seems to me to be no reason why the poor man should not have a fine theater. The owners of this house have certainly provided one. This theater and this audience do credit to Baltimore.”
The opening night performance incorporated a showing of the film “The Iron Master” with a vaudeville bill of “whirling” dancers, a comedy act and singing. The stars of the show, according to The Sun, included a man juggling a barrel with his feet and four elephants that performed tricks such as building a pyramid and playing harmonicas. The performing pachyderms were a testament to the strength of the stage’s construction.
Although he was just a boy, Maurice Pearce can still recall the excitement of that night. “I remember the crowds, and I remember the people in the streets,” he says. The city closed down streetcar service on Eutaw Street that night due to the throngs. “They had given out keys all over the city, and anyone whose key fit a certain lock in the front door got in free for opening night.”
For a time, the Hippodrome lived up to the fanfare of its beginnings. Marion Pearce was a prime mover in Baltimore’s theatrical circles and helped many acts get their start, including a group of singing young ladies from Baltimore that became the Flora Dora Girls. Crowds came for one of the Hippodrome’s three daily performances. By 1920 the Hippodrome’s weekly attendance was about 30,000 – among the best in the city for a house of its size.
“People were anxious for entertainment,” Maurice Pearce explains. “Nothing like this had ever been seen before.”
Marion Pearce and Scheck operated the Hippodrome until 1917, when it became part of the Loews chain. Pearce became ill in the 1920s and Scheck died in 1932. It was the end of an era and signaled the beginning of a decline for the Hippodrome. “The problem with the Hippodrome was that it was too far west from Baltimore, Gay and Holliday streets, what is now The Block,” says historian Robert Headley. “That was the center of the action.”
A small, apathetic crowd showed up for the public auction of the Hippodrome in 1931. The decline in attendance had put the theater into receivership. The sole bidder was L. Edward Goldman, who purchased the theater for the paltry sum of $14,000, plus $350,000 in debts. It appeared that the Hippodrome’s boom years had passed. That is until Isidor “Izzy” Rappaport arrived in Baltimore from Philadelphia and leased the Hippodrome in August 1931 (he later bought the theater).
Rappaport, like Pearce, was a showman. He was a charmer, an impeccable dresser and a born salesman with an eye for putting together show-stopping acts. His son, Bob Rappaport, now 75 and retired from the theater business, remembers how his father bumped into Gene Autry while on vacation at a hotel in Palm Springs, Calif., befriended him that day at the swimming pool and convinced him – and his horse – to travel across the country to perform in Baltimore. The lines for the event were so long that hot dogs and souvenirs were sold on the street to appease the waiting crowds.
Rappaport also came to town at a time when the tide of city life was flowing west. Howard and Lexington streets were hubs of commerce in the city. Women in gloves and men in hats shopped at Hutzler’s, Stewart’s, Gutman’s and Hochschild-Kohn.
Rappaport ushered in the Hippodrome’s second heyday in the 1930s and ‘40s and cemented the theater as an icon of American pop culture for a generation of Baltimore youth. “He had a great personality, great magnetism, and everybody knew him,” recalls his son. “Every time Bob Hope would come into town for a football game, he’d want to know if Izzy Rappaport was still around.”
True to its beginnings, the Hippodrome’s regular offerings included a full-length film and a vaudeville show during the Rappaport years. The vaudeville shows always drew crowds and offered a true menagerie of talents. There were dancers and big bands and comedians and outrageous jugglers and acrobats performing to the tune of the house orchestra. Every Saturday morning, Uncle Jack’s Kiddie Club (something of a precursor to the modern ritual of Saturday morning cartoons) hosted a local talent show for children. Most families lingered afterward to catch the next show.
Rappaport saw to it that the Hippodrome hosted top acts, many of whom went on to stardom, like the Three Stooges. But some of his successes seemed as much determined by fate as by business savvy. Bob Rappaport explains that his father, one of the few independent theater owners in Baltimore, would often find his acts stolen away by the larger Loews chain and he would be left to scurry for a replacement. In the wake of one such debacle, Abbott and Costello got their start at the Hippodrome and began their landmark career.
“One week they [the New York booking agents] sent down a comedy team that had just come out of burlesque, which was Abbott and Costello,” says Rappaport. “My father, when he saw them, said he’d never seen anything like it, it was so outstanding.” Rappaport signed the duo to a seven-year contract. He then got the team linked up with “The Kate Smith Hour,” a big-time Sunday night radio show, and a contract with Universal Pictures soon followed. “From then on, they were superstars,” says Rappaport.
Crowds also flocked to the Hippodrome for the big bands. Jack Benny and Gene Krupa played there, as did Bob Hope before he became a household name. A young Ronald Reagan came to Baltimore as part of a revue of up-and-coming talent that included his future wife Jane Wyman. A contract from 1942 lists Frank Sinatra as an employee of the Tommy Dorsey Band playing at the Hippodrome. Sinatra’s total wages were $128.52.
According to Gilbert Sandler, author of “Small Town Baltimore: An Album of Memories” and resident Baltimore historian, lines for the Hippodrome would stretch as long as a city block. “Young people turned to the only live entertainment, which was vaudeville,” says Sandler, who fondly remembers going to the Hippodrome to hear the great bands, his personal favorite being Louis Prima.
“The really big vaudeville in the ‘30s, ‘40s and into the early ‘50s was at the Hippodrome. For just a few cents you got these great movies and then the curtain went up and here come the acts – dog acts, acrobats, jugglers, big bands. It was all there in glorious, living life.”
According to Bob Rappaport, there was something impossible to describe about the theater itself that lured audiences and performers alike. It was as imperceptible as the scent of a beautiful woman walking out of a room, he says, yet just as alluring.
“The Hippodrome in its heyday was more of an institution than, say, the Earle in Washington,” says Bob Rappaport. “We used to say the Hippodrome had a personality. Maybe it was because of the physical building, maybe it was my father, but it had a personality that very few theaters in the country had. If a movie played in the Hippodrome, it brought in more money than any other theater in the city.”
After World War II, the tide again ebbed away from Baltimore’s theaters. The big national acts started to play in Las Vegas where they could get top dollar playing in one location. The first-run movie theaters followed their patrons’ flight out of the city and into the suburbs. But it was television that really changed entertainment forever.
“Everything stopped for Milton Berle,” says Sandler. The advent of television and the televised variety show killed vaudeville, and by 1949 it was all but over at the Hippodrome. The Baron Brothers moved their act into this new medium and gave their last performance at the Hippodrome in the early 1950s as part of a revue of television stars in front of a slow crowd.
“The last hooray for the Hippodrome was in the 1960s when Rappaport leased the theater to TransLux, who remodeled the theater and brought in the big movies,” says Headley. The Baltimore premiere of “My Fair Lady” was at the Hippodrome and Headley notes in his book that another movie, “Slaves,” had a fancy premiere in 1969. A small item in The Sun from Nov. 20, 1967, reported that a one-alarm fire drove 1,400 patrons out of the Hippodrome just as Atlanta was going up in flames on screen in “Gone With the Wind.”
Despite these small rallies, the curtain was falling on the Hippodrome. “Theaters were left to scrape for triple horror features, blaxploitation and X-rated films,” Headley says. “The Hippodrome scraped along too, until August of 1990, when it closed.” There were several attempts to revive the theater, but they failed. While urban renewal claimed many of the great old theaters, like Ford’s and the Stanley (which had been the largest and most-grand of all Baltimore’s old movie palaces), the Hippodrome loomed large and empty on the west side, a relic of a bygone era.
The old gal did have a few more recent stabs at the big time, though. In 1998, film director Barry Levinson used the exterior as a stand-in for another one of Baltimore’s vanished landmarks – the long-gone Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue – in his film “Liberty Heights.” And John Waters filmed parts of his 2000 film “Cecil B. Demented” at the Hippodrome. But mostly it sat silent, a ghost of another era.
“You could just cry,” remembers Sandler. “I used to go out of my way to drive by and think ‘what a monument to yesterday.’ The Hippodrome figured so prominently in the lives of young people in the ‘30s and ‘40s. It was not just a theater; it was a rite of passage. It was a way of life.”
Even if the Hippodrome does not reclaim the massive magnetism of its early days – with today’s audiences made fickle by limitless entertainment choices – the revitalized theater holds tremendous promise for new vibrancy on the city’s west side. It will bring top-notch Broadway shows to Baltimore that never had a venue in the city before.
“Imagine that for nearly 300 days a year, the Hippodrome will attract visitors and patrons for headliner theater and cultural programming,” says the WestSide Renaissance’s Kreitner. “A new era is being ushered in, and the west side is ready to welcome the visitors who will sample the riches of urban life and its business, medical, academic and retail treasures with a fresh perspective.”
The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, a complex of three historic landmarks including the Hippodrome (along with the adjoining old Western National Bank and Eutaw Savings Bank buildings), features more than 2,200 seats and will host more than 270 performances a year. The 2004 lineup already includes “The Lion King” and “Phantom of the Opera,” in addition to the premiere production, “The Producers.”
“I think it is the greatest thing to happen to the city since Capt. John Smith sailed up the Patapsco,” says Sandler.
Optimists point to other notable success stories for proof that theater renovation pays off. The Stanley in Pittsburgh underwent a $43 million renovation thanks to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust that revived the splendor of the theater’s 1928 origins. Two other vintage movie palaces in Pittsburgh have also successfully renovated for new use: The Warner and Loew’s Penn Theater, which was remade as Heinz Hall in 1971, and is now the home of the Pittsburgh Symphony. The Fox in Atlanta has long been touted as a renovation success. Saved from demolition in 1976, the landmark theater underwent a $20 million restoration and is now as opulent as it was when it was built in the 1920s.
With its $63 million price tag, the Hippodrome raises the bar in theater preservation, but as foundation chairman Eric Grubman says, the Hippodrome is “the right project at the right time.”
Those who remember the Hippodrome will note that it has undergone more than a face-lift; it has seen major reconstructive surgery. It is hardly the “poor man’s” theater opened by Mayor Preston in 1914 when a Saturday night on the town could be had for a few cents. It remains as a survivor. As its peers have been bulldozed for parking lots and condominums, the Hippodrome lives on, reborn again with another chance at greatness. Perhaps when “The Lion King” premieres, the phantasms of Robinson’s performing elephants will be watching from the wings, near the spot where little William and Wilbur Baron clamored to glimpse the flickering feature film before they went on.
“People talk about the Hippodrome and they’re interested in when Frank Sinatra played and whether Jimmy Dorsey played,” says Bob Rappaport, “that’s really not what it’s about. What it’s about is the heartbeat this theater had. There are certain things in a community that stand out – the Hippodrome stood out.”
Please Be Seated
The Hippodrome Adopt-a-Seat Program will benefit the $15 million capital campaign for renovations and help build an endowment fund to support the theater and its programming.
Each of the 2,250 seats in the new Hippodrome is eligible for adoption. A personalized brass plaque on the seat’s armrest will honor an individual or group, and the plaques will be in place during the Feb. 10 inaugural gala events. Each plaque displays up to three lines of text with up to 24 characters per line, and the funding levels are: $1,000 for a balcony seat, $1,500 for front balcony and $2,000 for an orchestra seat.
Seats may be adopted by calling 410-625-4230 or by visiting http://www.hippodromefoundation.org.